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mi pueblo fantasma

Facebook is an amazing sea of nostalgia, nestled in a never-ending cocktail party.

It far too easy to get sucked into any number of vast rabbit holes into the past, but the one that hold my fascination most is the private group for my old stomping grounds. These private groups (there are several) with insider photos, names, dates, places, and random reminiscences have had the double-edged distinction of helping me relive so much lost history while making me saddened by so much that has been lost over time.

When did we decide new was better, that reinvention was better than renovation? Things change, life moves forward, and yet as we look back through the prism of the past it can’t simply be a delusion that we find a happiness in longing for the long-forgotten.

It doesn’t help that I grew up in a town that was built on illusion. It isn’t hyperbole to say that Culver City was more Hollywood than Hollywood, because it simply was. My home town was the home to MGM who helped perpetrate the myth of Hollywood on its own back lots. As a kid I had no idea that the run-down looking properties that occupied pockets of my town where know the world over as the town of Mayberry, Tara Plantation, Stalag 13, as well as sections of New York, St. Louis, and the Wild West. But as these imaginary places disappeared with the encroachment of civic development in post-war America so did the rest of my home town. Most of the bungalows and tract homes remain, but the rest of it is nearly unrecognizable. In half a century’s time the place I grew up became a shadow of its former self, a ghost town razed and graded into its current shape.

Old memories are replaced by new. the kids who hung out at the mall remember it as fondly as the older kids who remembered the horse farm and go-kart track that the mall replaced. The famous jazz club that hosted some of the greats in its time, forgotten even when I was growing up, is now an even more anonymous office supply store. The mighty Helms bakery, with its boxy trucks that delivered fresh bread and donuts and made-to-order cakes to our neighborhoods, its building has been redeveloped and its trucks retired to a local museum.

These things, they disappeared, they gave up their ghosts, they haunt our memories. They may have earned the sentimentality of our collective nostalgia simply by having been taken away from us, but we’d rather have them back than have the memories.

Sadly, all that remains are the ephemeral artifacts of memory gathered by a virtual community on social media. One day we may even long for this much connection to the past.

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Growing up we had one camera in our family, a Kodak Brownie Starmite, a blue and white piece of molded plastic with a silver disk for the flash bulb. Whenever there was a social occasion the camera would be dug out of the closet, a few pictures would be taken, and the camera put away. It could be MONTHS before the roll of 24 snapshots would be ready to be removed and developed, and a returned envelope of prints was like a mini time capsule of events full of surprise images – some flawed, some sad, some goofy, some tragic – but all of them undeniably historical for the memories they rekindled and the stories they told.

Eventually newer cameras and easier-to-load film formats emerged and suddenly we had multiple cameras in the house. I don’t remember whether we got the Polaroid Instamatic or the Kodak 110 Pocket Instamatic, or where the X-15 Instamatic fell in among these, but with cartridge loading and instant imagery came the idea that photos could be both easier to take and provide more instant gratification. The film cameras still needed to be taken in for developing but the cartridges were easy and guaranteed fewer lost and fogged rolls. But the Polaroid, that was a game changer.

Now when you took a picture you could peel off the backing paper to expose the chemical to the air for development (before you simply shook it until the image emerged) and if for some reason it didn’t look right, someone blinked or the lighting was bad, you could “correct” the memory on the spot. Instead of reliving a moment from the past we now gathered around and shared a moment from a few moments earlier. It was a sweet novelty but the cost of instant film was prohibitive enough that it, too, would only be trotted out to perform on special occasions. For really important moments both a film camera and the Polaroid would be pressed into service, just to make sure the event was well-preserved.

Jump ahead. Jump beyond the camcorder revolution, beyond the point-and-shoots, beyond early digital cameras of 2 megapixel, 4 megapixel, 10 megapixel, into the lap of the smartphone with its built-in digital camera. it’s an old story now, even now, that we have these cameras with us all the time and we can take a picture or video at a moment’s notice. We no longer wait for the special occasion, we capture every moment no matter how small. We review it instantly and decide whether to keep it store in memory or dump it to the digital netherworld. We no longer capture representations of moments for the future we capture the now, send it out to the world in the now, and move one to the next.

We no longer look at photos as moments in a memory, we remember the moments we recorded. The document has replaced the memory.

But a funny thing happened. For her fifteenth birthday J wanted to go out for a “tradition” of taking her elementary school friends out to ice cream. I brought a camera, my little Canon Powershot digital, and dashed off some candids while the kids ate and goofed around outside afterward. Then at home I hooked up the camera to the computer and realized that since I got my new laptop at the beginning of the year I hadn’t bothered setting up any of my photo uploading, editing, or sharing apps. And because the old computer was wonky and out-of-sorts I hadn’t dared load any pictures for some time. Almost ten months in fact, and it was as if I had just developed a roll of film from the old Brownie camera.

There was a combined birthday back in September that included a pig roast, a bouncy house for kids (and some grandparents), first-day-of-school pictures of the girls, a Thanksgiving trip to Chicago, Christmas with the in-laws and extended family, and finally this birthday trip. Other events during that time had been captured via the phone, given various processing and treatments and posted via social media or sent instantly via wi-fi networks to recipients. The photos in the camera, taken as a whole, were like an envelope of mystery snaps fresh from the drugstore. Having not seen some of them since they were taken, I was suddenly awash in memories and stories. Out of sight, out of mind, perhaps, but also absence makes the memory grow stronger.

While uploading these “lost” photos I came across a handful that I decided I wanted to have printed. Such a quaint old notion, to actually make prints of photos that I can always access via a phone or a computer, but with an entirely different message. To record a moment is to say “this happened” but to move beyond that, beyond adding the photo to social media or texting them to friends and family, to print a photo says “this is important, this moment in time, and it deserves more than a digital flit.”

I wonder sometimes, will this younger generation be satisfied to live in a world without these physically printed totems?  Has the 20th century’s reign of photographic memory-keeping come to an end in favor of the instant-constant documentation of daily life?

And does it make me a nostalgic old man for even caring?

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Those early months when i was just beginning to read independently, those were heady days. After years of decoding the meaning of language, facial expressions, cartoon narratives on television, finally the written world was made visible to me and it was magic. In fact, I sometimes wonder if the reason children believe in magic is because they are still so close to the days when their literacy revealed itself as if through a secret portal.

Among the strong memories I have about those days was the summer Weekly Reader program. For some small fee that my parents paid through another of those childhood mysteries, the mystery of money, I received the occasional (I don’t think they were actually weekly) folded sheet of stories and puzzles that not only reinforced the magic of reading but added the gift of mail. These things simply came to our house with my name on them! Magic!

Then there were the books.

Oh, the books!

Once a month during the summer the Weekly Reader program sent an actual, real book to me in the mail! I later understood these to be similar to book club editions, hardbound with printed covers like a library edition only less expensive, with the Weekly Reader logo on the back. Every once in a while I see the Weekly Reader logo on the back of a used book, but one book truly stood out among them all: The Crows of Pearblossom by Aldous Huxley. I have already discussed this book twice, and even linked scans of the entirety of it to my flickr account for all to see. The recent rerelease doesn’t do the boo justice, but I digress.

Among days of swim lessons and water fights in the neighborhood, hanging out at the local park making lanyards and collecting returnable soda bottles for enough change to buy candy, the afternoons that seem most golden were those where I was sprawled on the living room floor reading the Weekly Reader over and over. It could not have taken me more than twenty minutes to read it but it felt like hours, and I would revisit each copy several times until the next one came.

In time came bigger books, and regular trips to the library to bring home a haul of books, and the Weekly Reader faded away. I was years out of college when I remembered those summers fondly and held idle thoughts about creating an adult version of the Weekly Reader. By then I’d assumed the Weekly Reader was a thing of the past, no longer around, and how sad for kids that they couldn’t have the same experience I had.

And then I got the news this week: the Weekly Reader had been alive the whole time, only now it was being shuttered by its new owners.

I don’t care how plugged in and tech savvy kids are these days, it’s still fun to get things sent in the mail, and a magazine dedicated to fiction and word fun… how is this a bad thing? Perhaps the Weekly Reader struggled in recent years because parents assumed (as I did) that it no longer existed, or that they didn’t feel their children would be satisfied with so meager an offering as few short pages of throwaway material. And if the program no longer offered Club Editions of books sent periodically to kids, perhaps that’s part of the problem.

They say that kids who grow up with books in the home – books that are theirs, that they own – do better in school than kids who don’t, and this has long been one of the problems I’ve had with the forced march of summer reading: kids check the books out of the library, and the lack of ownership makes that reading feel throwaway, an obstacle to overcome. I didn’t have many books at home growing up because we were sorta poor, but the ones I had I treasured and reread like crazy. I wish I knew what other books I received via the Weekly Reader summer program, but the fact that The Crows of Pearblossom stuck with me for over forty years is a pretty strong testament to the power of books on impressionable young minds.

While I may have been premature with my thinking some years back, the sentiment stands: how sad for kids today that they cannot have that same experience.

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Many a moon ago when I was an aspiring writer with a self-published book, I collected some new material and decided to try to get published with a legitimate magazine. My book had been well-received by my peers and it seemed the next logical step was to broaden my horizons.

This was back in 1975. I was 13 years old and the book I’d published was a collection of illustrated puns that had been run off on an old mimeograph machine and handed out to classmates.

I’d actually co-authored the book with my best friend at the time, Marc Gartenberg, and we really thought we were all that and a bag of chips, although back then we would have said we were probably the bossest (or most boss) of anyone else. Slang has a funny way of slipping in and out of use, don’t it? Anyway, our heads were swollen with success and we decided we were going to conquer the world and gather more personal work and send it away to be published. Marc wrote a short story (illustrated by me) about his obsession of the time, Corvette’s, entitled “The Very Fast Car” while I put together a nonsensical collection of comics including one about a car tire that rolls around on an adventure called (and why I remember this I don’t know) “Zotimums.” We made a fateful decision to send our stuff together in one envelope with an SASE and mailed it off to a relatively young magazines aimed at a young audience called Kid’s magazine.

Outside of Highlights magazine, which we were too old for, Kids was the only magazine at the time we knew of that accepted contributions from kids. In fact, the entire contents of the magazine was kid-produced and it eventually had a 15-year-old managing editor. Better still, the paid their contributors $5 for each accepted piece plus the obligatory three copies of the issue they appeared in. Truly, this was the path for us budding young authors and illustrators, our chance to show the world with the kids at El Marino Elementary School already knew: that we were creative geniuses.

But did you catch the fatal flaw in all this?

Marc and I decided to send our contributions together more out of insecurity than anything else. In our crazy, kookoo, mixed-up minds we assumed the editors would be bowled over by our work and take us as a package. To our thinking, one nervous genius didn’t have the same chance as two nervous ones combined, so once we’d obtained the necessary postage for our envelope stuffed with papers we walked to the corner mailbox and together, each holding once side of the envelope, dropped it into the box together. All there was left to do was wait for inevitable SASE to return with our checks included.

We talked about it for days, for weeks, and then finally we talked about it less and less. After three months having heard nothing it might have lingered in the back of our minds in that same place where forgotten TV show episodes live, that mental basement where things that cannot be thrown out are left to be forgotten.

The one day I came home from school and found the SASE among the mail. It seemed pretty full of paper, which didn’t bode well. I was afraid to open it by myself so I hopped on my bike and rode to Marc’s place were we could open it as a team just as we’d mailed it. We gave the letter a glance, looked at the attached pages, then reread the letter again.

They’d only returned Marc’s story; they’d accepted all my cartoon randomness.

We’d never actually considered that we’d be rejected, and certainly never what to do in case only one of us was accepted. My memory is that we were bummed into silence. I think I might have said something about them being stupid for not taking Marc’s work. I don’t remember Marc saying anything at all, but I do sort of remember Marc telling me to go away. I took the envelope and his story home with me. For weeks Marc was cold and distant – as if it were somehow my fault – and one day he asked for his story back. That was the last we ever mentioned the situation. Eventually we ended the school year on friendly terms, though I was a year older and headed off to junior high where our friendships diverged further and further apart.

But what of my publishing career?

Ah, yes, well now we come to the first part of the post title. Kids magazine sent me not one but two letters begging my patience and indulgence while they were working behind the scene to put out their next issue. Already it seemed like they had gone from a quarterly to annual to sporadic publication schedule and I had read the handful of issues my library had so many times I had them memorized. Having already strained a friendship, I wasn’t really in the market to tout my pending credentials as a published author and risk the ridicule of fellow classmates until I had an issue in-hand as proof. If it thought the wait to hear back about my submissions was long, the period following my acceptance was an eternity.

Time is like that when you really want something as a kid.

Sometime in the course of the following year I’d more of less given up, and Kids confirmed they were no longer continuing as a publication. I’m pretty sure I got that notice with a return of my original comics, long since lost to history. Later, when I learned about the cosmos and its sense of humor, I chalked the whole thing up to my comics being the thing that “killed” Kids magazine, the low-quality straw that broke the camel’s back.

I was thinking about this only recently as an online magazine recently accepted one of my poems for inclusion in its “Spring” issue which was supposed to come out in the first week of June. Or so. Maybe it’ll be the Summer issue. There’s even less money involved than with Kids, and certainly no contributor’s copies in a digital space, and I’m only half wondering if, somehow, I haven’t once again brought a publication to its knees.

But if my 12-year-old self can wait in hope for over a year for publication of sub-par drawings I supposed I can give an online journal a few more months. In the meantime, I’d do anything to see those old Kids magazines again. In a pinch I suppose I could hunt down some early issues of Scholastic’s Dynamite! magazine; they were both created by the same person and were very similar in tone, though Kids was less commercial in tone, which may have been what really killed it in the end.

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* To be clear, the Kids magazine of yore is not to be confused with the glossy magazine of the same name on the stands these days. Totally different, in a funky 70s kid sort of way.

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Maurice Sendak left us this week and in his wake many people came forth with stories about the man and his impact on them, some as colleagues, some as readers. It would be fooling to claim this as a “top five” but these are the ones that stood out for me this week.

Illustrator Paul Schmid did a fellowship with Sendak a few years back, and on his blog he recounts the last visit he made. The key to the man, and the visit, was his ability to cut to the chase. “She didn’t capitulate.”

Art Spielgelman, creator of Maus, spoke with Sendak back in 1993 about his book We Are All In the Dumps With Jack and Guy. “You can’t protect kids, they know everything.” (Catch this while you can, before The New Yorker locks up behind its pay wall again).

Scholar and author Phillip Nel remembers his contacts with Sendak while working on his dual biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss. “I feel as though Max was born in Rowayton, and that he was the love child of me, Ruth, and Dave.” Also: the birth of the rumpus.

Nel also gathered a collection of illustrators tributes to Sendak. Most of these are lovely, though I’m a little confused by Harry Bliss’s graveside tribute from children’s book characters who came before Sendak. Wouldn’t characters who benefitted from Sendak be more in his debt of gratitude?

And bookseller Sarah Rettger remembers Sendak the local who would visit her store. I am still curious to know if he ever bought a book, and I do mean ever. Could Sendak simply call a publisher and say “I’d like to see…” and like royalty he’d receive it by overnight express?

So that’s five. The plus-one is my own personal recollection of growing up alongside his new releases in the 60s and 70s, and one book in particular that spoke to me then and still does. It probably doesn’t merit being in the same company of the other posts above, but its my blog, so there.

Seems everyone had a favorite memory or story to share in tribute. Feel free to suggest your own in the comments.

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…Poof.

Without a pop but with a whisper, Maurice Sendak packed his valise of sadness and crossed the ocean to join the place where his Wild Things were born.

To say I grew up with Sendak is to say I grew up within the sphere of his influence, as the books he both wrote and illustrated were published as I was becoming a reader. I was always slightly behind each new publication, discovering titles a few years after they were published, though they were and still are ever-fresh to my young eyes. The strongest, oldest memories would be of the books in The Nutshell Library (“Alligators All Around,” “Chicken Soup With Rice,” “One Was Johnny” and “Pierre,” 1962) but also there were the older books he illustrated for Ruth Krauss’s books “A Hole Is To Dig” (1952) and “Open House For Butterflies” (1960). In all these there is the whimsy of childhood but also the darkness that haunted much of Sendak’s work, a darkness that is a part of childhood more often excised by overprotective parents (and lately publishers). This very darkness, this undercurrent, is what anchors Sendak’s illustrations in a world instantly recognizable by children.

Why do his books stand the test of time? Look at the pictures.

The touchstone, of course, is “Where the Wild Things Are” (1964), a deceptively simple and subtle exploration of childhood play and anger management. It was and is the birthplace of much modern American children’s literature, much the same way that “The Great Gatsby,” “Winesburg, Ohio,” or “Main Street” could be argued as the beginning of a 20th century American literary tradition. Though for all Sendak’s cantankerousness, his outspoken disgust with being labeled a “kiddie book” writer, I think of him more as the Hemingway of children’s books. Without becoming too Freudian (is this possible with Maurice Sendak?) he simply is “Papa” to the world of children’s books. Seuss may have taught us all to read and think, Sendak taught us it was okay to feel.

Everyone has their favorite, but the Sendak book for me is “Higlety Piglety Pop!” (1967), a longer story featuring Sendak’s beloved dog Jennie who  explores the world and discovers her true passion as an actress. Based ever so loosely on a nursery rhyme, the key to this story comes in its subtitle “Or, There Must Be More to Life.” Jennie has everything she could want as a dog – a warm bed, plenty to eat, loving caretakers – but as with all children she must go out into the world and find out who she really is. That she ultimately becomes an actress spoke to a younger version of myself wondering about the life of a creative person out in the world, gaining experience. School, home, these were safe places, comfortable enough, but they didn’t speak to my spirit and they didn’t help me understand my place in the world or how to get there. While I certainly didn’t set out to model my life over that of a dog in a children’s book, I did need to leave home and put myself in some uncomfortable life-changing situations in order to learn about myself and what I wanted to do. I only wish those lessons could have been learned as quickly as Jennie learned them.

“Higlety Piglety Pop!” is an odd book of Sendak’s, more of an intermediate reader and to my knowledge the longest work of fiction he published (he wrote plenty of essays published as “Caldecott and Co: Notes on Books and Pictures,” 1988). While the book does end with the titular nursery rhyme acted out in picture book fashion, what I always loved was that Sendak took the time to flesh out the backstory to the drama. He probably could have illustrated the ditty as a picture book and told the same story, but just this once he wanted there to be more to the story, just as Jennie had wanted more to life. I did not know that this was Sendak’s valentine to his beloved terrier until many years later; it read to me, a young reader, like a fairy tale about a life. If it was nonsense it had the sense of what life looks like to a child, full of adults making rules and decisions arbitrary to a child’s eyes. There was danger and adventure and a mop made of salami. What’s not to like?

Recent interviews with Sendak around the publication of his most recent book “Bumble Ardy” (2011) showed his as a sad and tired man. He had lost too many loved ones and it seemed obvious that his art no longer brought him enough happiness to counterbalance the sadness.

Maurice, thank you for the wild rumpuess, the journeys through night kitchens, and all that chicken soup with rice.

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A few days ago on Thanksgiving I bombed Twitter (#tdayvidbomb) with Holiday-themed videos and clips, a sort of tribute/send-up for our National Eating Holiday. It occurred to me that not everyone who visits here might be on Twitter, or saw all the day’s tweets, so I’ve collected them here along with some annotations to explain some of what’s going on.

First, no American Thanksgiving is complete without that most noble of beasts, the turkey. And here they are, fattening themselves up for your enjoyment!

Wait, reducing the grain surplus? Wasn’t this during the depression?

Now, what would Thanksgiving be without the Macy’s Parade?  Second to Christmas, it was the one holiday we wouldn’t sleep in because we wanted to turn on the TV and watch the parade. Living in California we also hoped to see snow and cold. Weird, I know. Here’s what it looked like in 1935.

That’s right, you bark and show you don’t approve!

Now, time to truss up that bird and make it golden brown. The secret? It’s better with butter, baby!

Bake your turkey the American Dairy Association way!

How about a Tex Avery cartoon to keep the kids busy while you’re in the kitchen? A little “Jerky Turkey” coming right up. And for those who can stream to their TVs, this is an exceptionally fine copy.

Time for a little football, perhaps? This is some old home movie (1929!) from my current home town’s rivalry game. This field is still in use by both the high school and a nearby college.

Everyplace I’ve lived there was always one radio station that would play Alice’s Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie from beginning to end. It was pretty much the only way they could ever give it any radio play. It was made into a movie, which I still have yet to see, but here’s an original (and longer than normal) trailer for it.

Alright, looks like the bird’s out of the oven and we’re ready to eat. Let’s let Jimmy Stewart deliver the thanksgiving prayer (from the movie  Shenandoah).

Charlie Chaplin reminds us that not everyone can afford Thanksgiving. Maybe this isn’t going to be so funny in the future.

(By the way the shoe was made of licorice, which posed quite a health risk as two pounds of licorice is enough to cause serious heart arrhythmia!)

A little light dining music? Yes, nothing better for the appetite than classical music. Ladies and gentlemen, Liberace and his take on “Turkey in the Straw.”

Say what you will, the man could play.

And for a little after dinner entertainment, the children will put on a little play. Leave it to the Addams Family to teach us the true meaning of the holiday (and with Swedish subtitles).

Let’s work off some of those calories Little Eva and do the “Turkey Trot.”

In the days before DVDs and VCR and cable and movies on demand, many a family enjoyed the annual Thanksgiving tradition of watching The Wizard of Oz on TV.

I kind of miss those shared TV events. Aside from live sports events and awards shows and the occasional marathons, is there anything like this these days?

Looking ahead, while the adults are out doing shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, what are the kids supposed to do? Watch TV of course! This promo is from 1972.

Or, if you were a little more sophisticated, you did the Godzilla marathon.

Finally, if Macy’s announced the arrival of Santa and the holiday season, the deal wasn’t sealed for us on the West Coast until the Santa Claus Lane Parade took place (usually the weekend AFTER Thanksgiving). Proximity to Hollywood made it easier to draw big names, and floats towed by tractors replaced large balloons. Oh, and Gene Autry wrote “Here Comes Santa Claus” back in 1946 as a reference to his participation in this parade.

BONUS TIME!

I found some more videos during the holiday that people posted elsewhere that I didn’t tweet. You can call these leftovers or seconds or the feverish dreams of a tryptophan nap, but here they are. This first one features Christina Ricci making a repeat visit, this time from the movie THE ICE STORM. Another sarcastic holiday dinner prayer.

Red Skelton delivered this homily during one of his TV shows back in 1952. Was he talking about a Communist invasion?

This recently discovered home movie footage from 1939 (in color!) shows the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade that took place on what we consider the modern Thanksgiving era, i.e., the first year the holiday was moved to the third Thursday in November to lengthen the shopping season an stimulate the economy. I think to do this today we’d need to have Thanksgiving sometime around the middle of July. Note, this would be the first appearance of the Tin Man from THE WIZARD OF OZ which came out earlier the same year.

And for all those turkeys who made it through the holiday without ending up on the table, a disco tribute.

And that’ll do it. Hope you and yours had a fine holiday and enjoyed the traditions that were uniquely your own.

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